As a student, Associate Professor of Music Nikki Malley ‘98 recalls sitting in a faculty office on the South upper floor of the Center for the Fine Arts. Various percussion instruments cluttered her desk, instruments which she named and explained individually before stowing them in her metal closet. A pile of magazines slumped under the coffee table to fan out on the area rug, a problem Malley quickly remedied.
Malley noted how lucky she was to have room for a cozy, living-room area as well as the countless books and piano. Many people pass through: professors, music students, members of the musical groups she directs and student employees.
Over the last 20 years, this office has seen Malley in all of those roles.
“I lived my life in this office… having no idea that it would be my office many years down the road,” Malley said.
Her journey from student to teacher is marked by a lot of hard work and a lot of help.
Malley began her music career as a child taking piano lessons. As her talent developed, her family supported her, although her chosen route was unexpected.
“My parents owned a bookstore, so it was like, English, English, English, but they were really supportive,” she said. Her road was not without challenges.
Because of her small hands she eventually had to stop pursuing piano and picked up flute, which she played well but didn’t enjoy as much.
In high school, she was ready to quit altogether, but her band director, Bill Stultz, had another idea.
“My band director said, ‘Well, why don’t you try percussion?’… So I started playing mallet instruments, or keyboard percussion, as it’s called in some circles. It’s based on the piano and I found out I really had an affinity for it,” Malley said.
She did not consider jazz percussion as anything more serious until another moment her senior year of high school, when her director pushed her during jazz band.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘why don’t you go take a solo on the vibes?’ And I was terrified! I’m sure I played the worst solo ever in the history of mankind, but I thought it was so exciting,” Malley said.
Malley worked with Professor Scott Garlock as an assistant and member of the Knox Jazz Ensemble, which he directed. She went on to grad school, though she did not specialize in performance.
“I’ve always been worried that if I did performance full-time it would change how I feel about performance, that seeing it as my job would change my relationship with it,” Malley said.
After getting her Master’s Degree, Malley faced the decision of whether or not to continue further in her education. Another band director, this time Scott Garlock, had an idea about that, too.
“Scott Garlock, the person who preceded me here in this position, took a position at another institution and encouraged me to apply for the visiting one-year position,” Malley said.
She applied, not expecting to get the job and was pleasantly surprised. “This’ll be a little dream come true for a year,” she remembers thinking.
With her colleagues’ encouragement, Malley decided to apply for the tenure-track position, though again she did not expect to be hired.
“When they did the full search, I assumed they’d hire someone who already had their PhD or DMA,” she said.
When she was offered the position, Malley began the grueling process of getting her doctorate, taking classes at the University of Iowa while teaching full time at Knox.
“I tell my students, ‘don’t do what I did. But if someone lets you do what I did, then you should do it!” she said.
Malley graduated with her PhD in Musicology in 2012.
With encouragement from her professors, Malley never gave up. Now, she tries to do for her students what her mentors did for her.
“When you’re a band director, sometimes one little thing that you do could be “The Moment” for a student,” she said.